Podcast: Putting PBIS to Work in Real Life

Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

“Now, of course, real people are complicated. Behaviors don't always fit into these really neat little boxes like I'm describing,” says Cyndi Pitonyak, an expert on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and guest of this month’s episode of Unrestrained. She also has over 30 years of experience in primary and secondary education, so she’s seen many of those behaviors that educators and school staff encounter every day—the ones that don’t fit into those neat little boxes. As she pointed out during our conversation, kids who have chronic behavioral difficulties are really a normal part of any natural school population. “It's part of our job in schools to teach those kids and to address those issues,” said Cyndi. “And one way to look at it is that these kids, kids who have chronic issues with behavior, are going to take up your time anyway.”

Another issue she cited with taking a reactionary approach to problem behaviors is that it tends to exacerbate them. “You wind up reacting with greater and greater intensity, and this approach typically escalates the problems over time, and kids often wind up getting kicked out of school completely or sent to a different kind of program,” Cyndi remarked during our interview.

“So the issue is do you want to spend your time creating support and helping kids connect and teaching them new skills, or do you want to spend your time reacting and isolating and punishing? My experience has overwhelmingly been that PBIS is a much less stressful, much safer, more effective approach over time, and therefore, it's ultimately less time consuming.”

It’s unsettling to know that some schools still use restraint and seclusion as teaching tools, although these methods are most typically used in crisis situations. I asked Cyndi to remark on restraint and seclusion from a PBIS perspective. Can they function effectively as a preventive strategy to diminish crises from risk behavior?

“We don’t give swimming lessons when somebody is drowning.”

“A crisis is usually not a teachable moment. We don't give swimming lessons when somebody is drowning,” Cyndi replied. “Restraint and seclusion are emergency procedures. They might be necessary in the moment when the immediate alternative is that somebody is going to be seriously hurt, the student or someone else. But by far, most of the problem behaviors we see in school are not emergencies. Most of the problem behaviors that teachers are dealing with in schools, at least at their beginning, are not behaviors where someone is at risk of serious injury.”

Cyndi went on to point out that students have been seriously injured and even killed by the use of restraint and seclusion procedures, and in addition to not preventing crisis situations, they also present no positive alternative. In contrast, PBIS is a proactive approach, involving antecedent-based intervention and teaching functional replacement behaviors. It's about a data-driven instructional approach to problems, and by design it is the very opposite of a reaction measure.

“Kids behave in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons, and effective behavior intervention has to be individualized to meet their circumstances and their needs,” Cyndi said. At CPI, we couldn’t agree more.

“A #crisis is not a teachable moment. We don't teach swimming when someone's drowning.” -Cyndi Pitonyak, #PBIS

Put Proven PBIS Strategies to Work—With These Free Resources! Cyndi was good enough to allow CPI to offer these essential PBIS resources (also known as Positive Behavioral Supports, or PBS):

1. Class 1 Fundamentals of PBS – a PowerPoint slide presentation about the fundamentals of PBS, explaining in entertaining images and words the dramatic paradigm shift away from modifying behaviors by using a “problem kid” focus to understanding student behavior as meaningful communication and changing it through support and teaching. Along the way, Cyndi explains the negative consequences of zero tolerance, increased surveillance, and increased suspension and expulsion policies.
2. Appendix A – How to Make a PBS Plan
3. Appendix B – Crisis Plan Worksheet
4. Appendix C – Crisis Incident Record Form
5. Appendix D – How to Complete a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)

(Note: All resources described in this post are available in a ZIP file you can download here.)

Do You Work With Kids on the Spectrum? We Have Free Resources for that, too!

After many years of service as the special education coordinator for Virginia’s Montgomery County Schools, where she oversaw the district’s adoption of PBIS, Cyndi became a technical assistance associate with the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence (ACE). The center describes itself as a university-based technical assistance, professional development, and educational research center for autism spectrum disorder. It is funded by the Virginia Department of Education.

“We provide free training and information to anyone and everyone through our website, which is vcuautismcenter.org. We also work with school divisions who are selected through a competitive grant application process. Every three years or so, we select a new group of school divisions from across the state to work with. And we provide intensive technical assistance to those school districts. We help them achieve their goals to improve their services for kids on the autism spectrum and to all their kids,” explains Cyndi.

VCU Autism Center for Excellence

Free resources on the website include:

  • A Training & Education tab with links to online courses for teachers, administrators, and parents.
  • Ask the Experts, a series of short videos containing powerful tips on helping kids on the spectrum.
  • The ACE Dashboard, a customizable portal where you can choose from a collection of self-paced training. Topics include: Overview of ASD, Prompting, Reinforcement, Communication, Behavior, Transportation, Visual Supports, and Environmental Structure. (To access the ACE Dashboard, you’ll need to set up a FREE account.)

Bonus Resource: Learn The Foundational Five

Another free resource included with this podcast is an autism practice brief called The Foundational Five. “The Foundational Five are five practices that we at ACE have found to be a particularly great starting point for schools when they're trying to build their services and get their teachers more involved in using evidence-based practices, because these five have lots of bang for the buck when it comes to student learning,” says Cyndi. The Foundational Five practices include:

  • antecedent-based interventions
  • reinforcement
  • social communication interventions
  • systematic instruction
  • visual supports

I couldn’t possibly fit everything Cyndi covered in our conversation into just one blog post—in fact, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Want to learn more about how PBIS works in real- life situations? Want to find out how you can implement these free resources into your school environment? Curious to know what to do when a student’s behavior doesn’t fit neatly into a little box? Take some time to download or stream this month’s podcast episode, or read the full transcript; I know that you’ll leave the conversation with the same restored hope and renewed perspective that I did.

Guest Biography

Cyndi Pitonyak is a special educator with over 30 years of teaching experience in both elementary and secondary schools. She has administration experience at the school and district level. She has provided technical assistance and training to school divisions nationally and internationally and has taught at the college level in undergraduate and graduate level special education teacher preparation programs. Cyndi is particularly interested in inclusive education and is a subject matter expert in PBIS, or Positive Behavioral and Intervention Supports.

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